Sunday , May 16 2021

Worm-like robots swim in the soil to explore the agricultural underworld



ITAKA, NY – Crop scientists have learned a lot over the years about how plants grow above ground, but much less is known about roots and their interactions with the soil. Now, a Cornell University project will develop worm-like robots that swim in the ground to sense and record the properties of soil, water, soil microbiome, and how roots grow.

The $ 2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, led by lead researcher (PI) Tarin Bauerle, an associate professor of horticulture at Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will focus on the plant and soil perspective.

Meanwhile, a $ 750,000 grant from the National Robotics Initiative to P.I. Robert Shepard, an associate professor at the Sybil School of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering at Cornell College of Engineering, will develop ground-breaking robots.

The project will focus on corn, with the ultimate goal of including root growth factors to improve breeding and soil management efforts that directly affect food productivity and safety.

“We are planning to develop new tools so that we can use the underground environment of plants and soil in a way that allows us to shine light in a black box with plant-soil interactions,” Bauerle said.

The team will develop 1 to 2 foot worm-like robots that mimic how a drill drills into the ground, combined with a peristaltic motion that mimics how worms move through soil.

Another goal of the project will be to assess how plants can respond to the effects of climate change, such as water availability. Root growth measurements, factorized by environmental data, can provide insight into how roots grow based on external conditions, such as drought.

“This is really the next frontier in plant biology,” said Michael Gore, a co-PI project professor of molecular reproduction and genetics. By quantifying underground characteristics, researchers can then identify relationships with above-ground characteristics, Gore said.

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